Kwame Alexander Reflects On Childhood, Fatherhood, And Food
The acclaimed poet, activist, and author discusses his new memoir, Why Fathers Cry At Night, the beauty of family recipes, and connecting with his daughters.
Kwame Alexander recently had a rare opportunity that no father should squander: to look cool in front of his 14-year-old daughter. His Disney+ show The Crossover, based on his Newbury Award-winning novel of the same name, had a big Hollywood premiere, complete with a red carpet and plenty of photographers. And he brought her as his date.
Okay, technically the carpet was orange, a nod to the show’s focus on basketball. But it was a night they’ll both remember.
A New York Times #1 Best Selling author, poet, and producer, Alexander has written 39 books, including An American Story, Swing, Becoming Muhammed Ali, and The Door of No Return trilogy. His picture book, The Undefeated, an inspirational ode to Black Americans rife with references to historical figures written as a verse poem and illustrated by Kadir Nelson, is a wondrous work that won the Caldecott Medal and was nominated for a National Book Award.
Marked by a deep desire to tell stories for and about Black children of all ages, Alexander’s books are crafted for younger readers, but they don’t shy away from complexity. They are uplifting and soulful, but also sad and honest. Many depict truthful family life as well as circumstances and situations that Black children in particular are forced to navigate.
Make sure you listen to your kids. Don't just hear them. But listen to them. It's very hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile.
Alexander traces his love for reading and writing back to when as a 12 year old cleaning out his parent’s garage in Virginia. He stumbled across Muhammad Ali’s 478-page autobiography and couldn’t put it down.
“It was brash. It was super confident. It was rhythmic. It was poetic,” he recalled earlier this year in an interview with The Kennedy Center. “And I sort of realized in that moment that wait a minute, books are cool. Books are fun…I’ve spent my entire life trying to build avid readers, engaged writers amongst our young audiences who feel the same way about words that I did.”
His 2013 novel She Said, He Said is an excellent example of this. Billed as a hip-hop teen love story, the non-romantic climax of the narrative involves black teens leading a social media protest. It mixes in sections of ebullient prose and rhyming verse, which is one of Alexander’s signature stylistic choices and reflects his deep love for poetry and jazz.
The Crossover, which centers on the trials of twin 12-year-old, basketball-loving boys who reckon with sports and drifting apart, is written entirely in verse. And Alexander, who also executive produces the Disney+ adaptation, made sure that aspect was included in the show.
“There was a lot of push back to my ideas at times, which is what happens when you get a lot of creatives in the same room,” he remembers.” “I am very vocal, and I speak up. But I found that I had to pick my battles because I did recognize that TV shows are different from books. That was just a part of that creative process. And I think we got to a pretty dynamic place in the end.”
That dynamism works. Each episode includes interjections from the adult perspective of one of the teenage characters. Voiced by Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs, that character also happens to be a poet, and it’s easy to imagine Alexander’s internal monologue playing out with a similar rhythm in real life.
Recently, when Alexander was coping with the loss of his mother he turned to poetry to process his feelings.
As I looked back on my childhood, I felt myself being really judgmental and critical of my dad. And as I interact and engage with my 14-year-old, I find myself wanting her to extend me grace and see that I'm actually pretty cool
“I’d been thinking about my mother a lot …And I’d been thinking about my marriage because of the cracks that were being exposed in that relationship. And as I was just thinking about all these different things, I began to write as a way of healing.”
Alexander realized the writings were interconnected and awakened a multisensory array of memories; the smells and tastes and sounds of his childhood.
“While those memories were about food in particular, they were really about family and breaking bread and sitting around a table and getting to engage with your people,” he says. “The food was the vehicle by which we got to this place of shared humanity. And so, I knew I wanted to write about that.”
As he conjured up dinner rolls, turkey legs, and shrimp salad, Alexander relied on family members to help fill in the details he was missing. Most recipes he wanted to include had never been written down, so it became a collective effort to resurrect the blueprint for those family favorites. Through trial and error and with his favorite jazz albums playing as he cooked, he tweaked each recipe in his kitchen to home in on their true form — or at least their truest form according to his recollection.
The result of his work is his new memoir, Why Fathers Cry At Night. Composed of poetry, recipes, and intimate letters to family members that reflect on his experiences as a son and a father, it’s a beautiful, unconventional book that also includes jazz recommendations and narrated personal experiences.
Writing Why Fathers Cry At Night also helped Alexander flesh out his memories and create new ones with his two daughters.
“As I looked back on my childhood, I felt myself being really judgmental and critical of my dad,” he says. “And as I interact and engage with my 14-year-old, I find myself wanting her to extend me grace and see that I'm actually pretty cool. I'm not a bad dad. As I started wanting her to extend me grace, it sort of made me think, Oh, snap, dude, you got to extend your dad some grace.”
I think that moment showed her, okay, he is actually doing something pretty cool and even inspirational.
The role that Why Fathers Cry at Night will play in how Alexander’s daughters remember him someday is yet to be seen. He knows his 31-year-old has read the manuscript but has yet to share her thoughts with him. And he’s not sure his 14-year-old will be reading the book anytime soon.
“I think that may be a little too deep, too much for her as a 14-year-old. She may not want to know all of this about her dad,” he says. “But my hope is that one day whether I'm no longer here or at some point in her later years, she will decide to go back and understand more about her dad.”
One of his goals is to spend more quality time with his daughters, especially his teenager. But, as with most parents, he finds that endeavor challenging. Dads rarely have enough cool points banked to impress their teens, who tend to remain staunchly unimpressed by anything their parents do.
But at the “Crossover” premiere he did manage to turn the tide a bit. Unsurprisingly, that experience hit his teenager differently.
“I remember looking at her at one point during the premiere, and it was the first time since she was maybe eight or nine that I could see that she thought her dad was pretty cool. Our engagement just sort of shifted after that,” Alexander says. “Usually, she gets embarrassed when her friends say, ‘Oh, my God, your dad's famous writer,’ but I think that moment showed her, okay, he is actually doing something pretty cool and even inspirational.”
What's your favorite thing to do together as a family?
Oh, vacation, for sure. We recently did a Disney cruise that was especially fun, and we just returned from London.
What's your favorite piece of clothing or accessory that you currently own?
I've got this amazing blue tux with black lapels that I wore to the Hollywood premiere of Crossover. I had done Weight Watchers and needed to lose like 10 pounds just to make sure it worked. And I did it, and it was beautiful. I've never looked that good in my life.
What's the most important skill you're passing down to your kids?
The most important skill I hope to pass down to them is the ability to use their voice to speak up for themselves confidently. I’m working on doing it for myself and want to try to model for them better.
Give us a book, record, movie, or TV recommendation.
One of the best albums I've listened to recently is a Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley jazz album. I listen to it at least once a week. It’s beautiful, passionate, and a joy to listen to. I just feel good. I think I probably feel good because it reminds me of my mother. I think she would play this or sing some of those songs.
If you could give one piece of advice to your former kid-free self, what would it be?
Listen. Make sure you listen to your kids. Don't just hear them. But listen to them. It's very hard to do, but it’s so worthwhile.